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The Incredulity Response

Fight or flight, I knew about those options. Fight like my father, who waved his beer and shouted, his face bright red. Flight, like my mother, who left the house for long stretches of time. It turns out there’s another option:  Freeze.

Early in the morning one high school summer I woke to loud wheezing from downstairs.  My sister, I thought, the one with the allergies and congestive problems, the tics and the sniffs and the throat clearing. It got louder. Should I go down? But my mother is always up early, and anyway, my parents’ bedroom is on the first floor, where the sound is coming from. I picture my mother leaning over my sister, checking on her after setting up a humidifier to ease her breathing.

The wheezing gets worse, really loud now, combined with gasps for air. Is this sound even human? Could it be the dog? I hear loud footsteps, my mother is at the wall phone in the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, the stairs that lead up to my room, and I hear her punch buttons, then punch them again, then again, then curse, then finally reach someone. I hear “ambulance” and my heart bolts in my chest. My sister is sick. My sister needs an ambulance.  The breathing is louder, louder, then stops.

What is going on.

In the distance there is already a siren, getting louder.

I stay in my room. I’ll only get in the way if I go downstairs. I don’t want my parents to yell at me. I don’t want to see my sister sick. I freeze.

Out the window of my room I see the ambulance pull into the driveway. Two men hustle a gurney into our house. Noises and voices downstairs, metal bumping walls, men’s shoes against the wood floors, the blood pumping in my ears, so loud. Then quiet.

I hear them come out the front door below my window, which is open to allow the early summer air. My forearms on the windowsill, supporting my chin. The rattle of the gurney, then I have a view of my father’s red face, the rest of his body under a sheet. “This one’s a goner,” one of the men says.


  1. Catherine O’Neill on

    Great pacing and surprise stakes.

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